• Nied Darnell

THE CASE OF THE HOLE IN THE WALL Part 10a (because it's quite long!)

Updated: Mar 24

Macus had a mask of his own in place, Mena noted the next morning. Rather than look relieved to see the back of them, he attempted sadness over their departure. She could almost hear Heath’s disparaging remarks on the man’s lack of acting ability. It was doubtful whether she would have seen it as such had she not been in Heath Haymes’ immediate vicinity for days now. Chances are, every time she entered a theatre in the future, those aristocratic tones of his would whisper phantom reviews on the talents displayed by the players on the stage. Snide, disparaging reviews they would be, too.

A sleepless night had decided her on one course of action though. Before they left, she was going to confront Macus, tell him why she and Ridley had arrived in his camp. Threaten to tell all about his side business when she returned to Chicago and thus ruin both his professional and private reputation.

She sidled up next to him as he watched Ismail help Heath load the mule with the luggage she and Ridley had brought west. Annoyed at the weight it was expected to carry, the equidae brayed in complaint.

“Dr. Macus,” Mena said softly, “might I have a word with you before we leave?”

“Of course, my dear,” he allowed though his gaze remained on the men with the pack animal.

She cleared her throat. “It has come to my attention that you have been selling the artifacts to someone not of the university you represent nor another. That, sir, is larceny.”

He turned to her then and harrumphed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Miss von Katchemstross. A man in my position would –”

“Would do whatever it takes to improve his financial situation,” she interrupted. “Particularly if this is not the first time he has pilfered from a museum and is now consigned to paying a blackmailer who discovered this secret. Or was it gambling that put you in debt?”

Although she was only guessing that either scenario was behind the chances he took in selling artifacts, the fact that he paled over those guesses proved to her that she was right.

“I was sent to investigate the disappearance of that first collection of bones,” she told him, then tossed in information that she hadn’t been told prior to the visit to the hidden world. “An Apatosaurus, I believe?”

Macus gasped then quickly defended himself. “I had nothing to do with the theft of those specimens,” he insisted.

“Oh, I know you didn’t. Another party was found in possession of them,” she assured. “But the ones you turned over to the magenta haired woman –”

Macus hastily sought one of the folding camp chairs and collapsed without a by your leave, the one thing he’d never done in her presence before. His gentlemanly manners had vanished as quickly as those newly sold off bones.

“I had to turn them over. There was no way I could pay her demand otherwise,” he said.

Mena tutted. “Dr. Macus – George,” she added, making use of the name he’d never offered to anyone but Heath Haymes. “As I understand it, the mass of Apatosaurus bones was priced at a mere hundred dollars. Using that scale, I doubt the few you turned over to the woman were worth more than twenty. Hardly enough to satisfy a blackmailer much less be accepted in lieu of a regularly scheduled payment. Do you know what she planned to do with them? Other than possibly further blacken your name by leaking word of how she acquired them?”

He dropped his head in his hands. “I’m ruined.”

Mena slowly pulled her riding gloves on, fidgeted with the fit around her fingers, supplying a reason for not joining Heath and Ridley. “Perhaps not,” she bargained. “Tell me her name and where she first made contact with you. I’ll make it a priority to find her and bring her to justice without your name being mentioned as either her supplier or victim.”

He looked up at her, hope in his eyes. “You’d do that?”

“I believe she is the bigger catch. You’re a small fish by comparison. However, I will keep an ear peeled for any connection of your name with scientific expeditions of any sort in the future. In fact, I believe it would be best that you withdraw from academic life entirely. Cite health problems developed here in the desert as your reason. That is the fee I claim to preserve your reputation. Do you agree?”

Macus didn’t bother to think about it. He pushed to his feet. Shook her hand. “Thank you, Miss von Katchemstross. I can’t begin to –”

“Her name, professor,” Mena snapped.

“I know her only as Sia,” he said. “She first approached me after a lecture. After that we met in passing at the museum. As I approached, she would casually drop a handkerchief or another feminine fribble. I would retrieve it for her and in offering her hand in gratitude, she passed a message to me.”

“Do you still have these messages?”

“I burnt them, Miss von Katchemstross. There could be no evidence of my involvement with her.”

Mentally, Mena sighed. Sia. It could be the pet name of a woman with a convoluted first name, like Ethelmena, which thankfully was not her name. It could be a covert designation used. Who better than a covert investigator to know how useful such could be? Otherwise, all she had was Heath’s description of the woman, and she wouldn’t have that if the tart in question hadn’t caught his eye regarding the curves she apparently made no effort to disguise when wearing men’s apparel.

When asked for a description of his buyer, Macus added nothing to Heath’s though. Neither had seen beyond the magenta hair and thrusting breast. Men!

Mena nodded to Macus and didn’t bother to look back at him as she crossed the space between where he stood, and her small caravan prepared for departure.

“Up to some final satisfactory mischief, darling?” Heath murmured near her ear when she stopped beside her patient mare.

“Very,” Mena agreed, and let him toss her up in the saddle.

~ ~ ~

The first day on the trail met with no attempts on his life, Heath was relieved to note once they’d all bedded down for the night around a campfire he was expected to build. Ridley hadn’t cared for the can of beans he was handed, unopened, to do with as he pleased for dinner. Feeling as though he was an old hand at the task now, Heath found a stick with short pronged branches and used it to push his and Mena’s separate cans to where they would warm but not burn. Having had someone to perform the job for him en route to Macus’s camp, Ridley not only pushed his in too far, he spilled half the can into the flames when he attempted to withdraw it. Heath was sure he caught Mena hide a smile over her partner’s ineptitude and hastily cut off curse. Once again, she tossed her blanket roll far from Ridley’s, but not any closer to Heath’s he was slightly miffed to note.

The bloody birds were up before the sun, but as it made for cooler temperatures for the start of their trek the second day, Heath heard no complaints. He and Mena broke their fast with the last apples that Hyckate had supplied. He had no idea what Broxton-Alverdeen did, though he looked longing at Mena as though expecting her to share. She didn’t.

If her partner was going to turn on them both during the journey, this was the day it would happen. They were an equal distance twixt camp and town and clearly not headed toward their goal at all. In fact, when he checked his compass, Heath noted that they were headed northwest rather than northeast toward the rail town.

“I say, old boy, are you sure we’re headed in the right direction? I haven’t recognized a single landmark and I did traverse this trail barely three days ago,” he shouted at the ponce.

“I agree with Heath, Ridley,” Mena declared. “I’ve been over this route more than either of you gentlemen, and nothing appears familiar today.”

Her partner twisted in his saddle. “I suppose you want to lead the way then?” he snarled. “Or turn the job over to your hired hand?”

“Not to me, Applebeam,” Heath assured him. “I’m quite happy trailing behind Mena’s skirts.”

Ridley glared at the mauling of his faux name then attempted to explain himself to Mena. “We’re headed the way that allows better grazing and water prospects for the animals. I asked for suggestions among the other men last evening, and this is the setting they recommended.”

“The fellows who aren’t guides or trappers but bone hunters,” Heath mused. “Excellent idea. I’ve no idea why it didn’t cross my mind to do the same before Mena and I left the town. I wasted a full evening by talking to men familiar with this stretch of country. Dash it all, I could have been drinking, gambling and whoring.”

“Gentlemen, please," Mena pleaded. "Why don’t we simply stop and compare compass directions. As we followed the river before and found forage for the animals, I vote that we do the same now then head in as straight a line as possible for the town. I am quite longing for a leisurely bath at the hotel before catching the next train east.”

“I, on the other hand,” Heath volunteered, “am hopeful for a decent bed and an indecent but enthusiastic woman with whom to test the mattress.”

Mena raised an eyebrow. Her lips thinned.

“Not you, darling, unless you’d care to…”

Her expression told him to stop playing to the lowlifes in the balcony.

She pulled her mare to a stop alongside Ridley. Heath maneuvered his gelding up next to her. “Compasses, gentlemen?” she requested. Both devises agreed on what direction was north, but the horses were most definitely facing northwest. There was very little of a northerly direction on Ridley’s trail, but definitely a western one. Quite the opposite of the northeastern direction required to reach the town.

Unfortunately, there was a very large rock formation between their current location and heading for that town.

“Well,” Ridley announced spitefully, “it looks as though we continue the way I chose after all. Once we round that bluff…”

Heath ignored the man. Mena sighed. “How far off the original trail are we?”

“At least an hour,” Heath said. When Ridley rode off without waiting for them, he put a hand over hers on the pommel of her saddle. “I don’t believe we’ll be alone with him out here, sweet. I noted the dust of another rider’s passing ahead of us. Chances are it’s the geologist. The two of them likely hatched their plan to dispose of us last night.”

“You’re guessing.”

“Do you have a different supposition you’d like to make? It’s only guesswork we can do considering we didn’t hear what might have been said. Whether your man lured his tentmate with tales of Fizwick’s gold or not, he began plotting my, if not also your, demise the moment we arrived in the other world.”

“Again, you’re guessing,” Mena insisted.

“Darling. I’m a gambler. A damned good one when I’m sober, which I currently am. I know when a man is lying. That’s what your partner is doing, and doing it badly, I might add.”

“What do you suggest we do? If there’s another man out here equally willing to kill for the sake of stealing from the government – for that is what it would be if the gold was discovered in our world – then we can’t separate,” she said.

Up ahead of them, Ridley pulled his horse to a stop and twisted in the saddle. “You’re dawdling behind again, Mena. Are you trying to make me jealous by hobnobbing with that British castoff?”

“Tell him yes,” Heath whispered.

She ignored the suggestion. “Considering we are nothing but employees of the same firm, I can’t see that you have any reason to be jealous of anything to do with me, Ridley,” Mena declared loud enough for him to hear. Aside to Heath she murmured, “But I do prefer to side with a man who knows how best to use a gun. Ridley’s a terrible shot. Unfortunately, I know for a fact that the geologist is not. I was privy to a demonstration of his ability during one of his practice sessions.”

“During this practice did he line targets up and pick them off at a leisurely rate or holster his weapon after every shot and then quickly draw it before firing?” he asked.

“It was just the shots. His gun only returned to his holster after he emptied it numerous times.”

“Had he set up targets or was he just shooting anything his eye fell upon, sweet?”

“Empty cans,” Mena said. “He placed them on rocks or logs, then took aim. Once they fell, he continued firing, making them dance across the ground.”

“How often did he miss?” Heath pressed.

She drew in a deep breath. “Never.”

“Duly noted,” Heath said then gave her mare a slap on the rump to get her moving again. As Cog and mount made their way down a slight dip in the landscape, he checked that his pistol would leave the holster smoothly when the time came to draw. They might live through this yet, he mused, for a man who didn’t practice his pull as well as a subsequent quick fire at targets, was a fool to his mind.

A nudging kick to the gelding’s belly and a coaxing click of his tongue to the mule, sent him trailing in Mena’s quake. But it wasn’t the way she swayed in the saddle that he watched, it was the landscape Ridley guided them toward. Heath scanned it from rock to brush, his eyes sheltered beneath the tilted brim of his black hat, watching for any sign that they were no longer alone.